Matriarch of Black Dance

While studying anthropology at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, Katherine Dunham still found time to continue her studies in modern dance and to open her first dance school.

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In 1936 Ms. Dunham was able to combine her training as an anthropologist with her belief that dance was an integral part of a people's social structure. That year Ms. Dunham traveled to the Caribbean to study African rituals and native dance forms. These field trips allowed her to investigate and incorporate indigenous dances and body movements into her work.

Upon returning to the United States, Katherine Dunham introduced African and Caribbean rhythms to modern dance and ballet. This became known as the Dunham Technique. As she taught, Ms. Dunham conveyed detailed information about the dance movements, how they were developed, as well as the philosophy behind her technique.

Katherine Dunham opened the Dunham School of Dance in New York to "train dancers in the knowledge and use of primitive rhythms." All the while she appeared in many films, performed, choreographed, and directed theater dance shows that toured all around the world.

Dunham School of Dance alumni:

Eartha Kitt
Marlon Brando
Jennifer Jones
Arthur Mitchell
Rudi Gernreich
Peter Gennaro

Following an acclaimed dance career, Ms. Dunham moved to East St. Louis, Illinois. Struck by the obvious signs of anger and hostility among the city's youth and believing dance to be "concerned with the fundamentals of society," she established the Performing Arts Training Center. Designed to offer city youth constructive alternatives to violence the Center included three active programs: the dance company, the children's auxiliary company and the educational center. Besides dance, other offerings included photography, theater and martial arts programs.

"I used to want the words "She tried" on my tombstone. Now I want "She did it."

(Ms. Dunham died May 6, 2006 at age 96)

The Katherine Dunham Museum consists of a collection of furniture, paintings, musical instruments, costumes, decorations, photographs, sketches, a broad range of ethnic art objects, and a cross-section of personal belongings documenting the life of this extraordinary woman.

Both the museum and the Katherine Dunham Children's Workshop continue to expose new generations to the work of this anthropologist, dancer, choreographer and humanitarian, the Matriarch of Black Dance.

Article by: St. Louis Public Library staff